Marine biodiversity issues at stake

With 11 million square kilometres of territorial waters, France has the second largest maritime area in the world, spread over four different oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, Southern, and Indian oceans.

97% of these waters are associated with overseas territories, half of which is in French Polynesia.

There is an astounding wealth of marine biodiversity in all these overseas oceans, making up a marvellous mosaic of extraordinary habitats.

This wealth of biodiversity will be promoted during 2011, the French Year of Overseas Territories.

In order to preserve and promote this wealth, some overseas territories already use marine habitat management tools, especially protected marine areas, or else have acquired an international label. The French Agency for Protected Marine Areas (Agence des aires marines protégées) is a public body set up in 2006 dedicated to protecting marine habitats. The agency operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Ecology and is headquartered in Brest. Its mission is to apply the commitments of the Grenelle Ocean Forum, and to expand and develop protected marine areas until they represent 10% of French waters in 2010 and 20% in 2020.

It has branches on the three coastlines of mainland France as well as overseas in the Caribbean, French Guiana, Polynesia, and New Caledonia.

In the Caribbean Guadalupe has developed a compact network of protected marine areas made up of four Marine Nature Reserves and one National Park which extends into the sea.

In the Indian Ocean the first overseas Marine Nature Park was set up in Mayotte in 2010 to preserve marine biodiversity and support the sustainable development of maritime activity. A study is underway to determine whether the glorioso Islands will be home to the second overseas Marine Nature Park. France’s largest reserve is to be found in the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. In Réunion, the Marine Nature Reserve protects some of its coral reefs.

The coral reef of New Caledonia is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

For 2011-2021, French Polynesia has launched a policy to create and manage protected marine areas together with an overall strategy. A Polynesian Conservation Authority for Managed Spaces (Conservatoire polynésien des espaces gérés, or CPEG) will be set up in 2011, and should help with problems relating to the management of protected areas.

French Guiana is also playing its part and has three protected marine areas: the Grand Connétable, the Kaw-Roura, and the Amana Nature Reserves. The current strategy prioritises better understanding of marine biodiversity before setting up new protected marine areas.

A haven for whales

The marine area of French Guiana was explored from the air for nearly 2 weeks in 2008 to look for marine mammals.

The Agency for Protected Marine Areas has launched a programme to monitor cetaceans in all waters under French jurisdiction. In 2008 this monitoring was carried out in French Guiana for the entire economic exclusion zone, up to 350 kilometres off the coast, by the Centre for Research into Marine Mammals (Centre de Recherche des Mammifères Marins).

“In French Guiana the results were really outstanding and full of surprises,” observes Professor Vincent Ridoux from the University of La Rochelle, and Director of the Centre for Research into Marine Mammals. “Until now the offshore waters of French Guiana were largely unknown and we found a very large number of cetaceans: common bottlenose dolphins, costeros, rorquals, sperm whales, beaked whales, and false killer whales.”

It was decided to monitor from the air as this means an instant, overall photograph of the distribution of marine mammals and their preferred habitats can be built up. This observation method also makes it possible to produce fresh data on seabirds, sea turtles, and large fish. This data will be used to assess marine biodiversity and ecosystems in waters under French jurisdiction. Marine mammals, being at the top of the food chain, are good indicators of the ecological state of the marine environment.

This unexpected discovery could result in a joint scientific project for marine mammals also covering the North of Brazil and Venezuela. The influence of the highly productive Amazonian plume means that the entire region forms a single ecosystem in functional terms and contributes to the biological wealth of the region. Strong coordinated action across these different countries is required given the diversity of the species, their distribution across national waters, and their fragile and even endangered status.

“We still only have very limited knowledge of the marine environment in French Guiana, we have only just started, and we need to know more so as to better manage these riches,” observes Arnaud Anselin, deputy director of the French Guiana Regional Directorate of the Environment (DIREN). The marine area was minutely examined to identify priority areas and draw up a strategy together with all those concerned. In French Guiana the study was conducted by the Agency for Marine Areas and the Regional Directorate of the Environment.

This involved analysing all the issues relating to the sea on the basis of the literature and using the help of local experts (scientific teams, naturalists, people depending on the sea for their livelihood, and local authorities). Studies included such subjects as the functioning of ecosystems via oceanographic parameters such as currents, sea temperatures, and the natural heritage including emblematic species (sea turtles, cetaceans, manatees, seabirds, and fish), and sea usage (the fishing industry, boating, tourism and nautical activities, and sea traffic). The aim was to bring out the challenges facing the coastal and sea areas of French Guiana. It reveals a real gap in our knowledge about the marine habitats of French Guiana.

Before envisaging the establishment of new protected marine areas in French Guiana it was therefore decided to build up our knowledge of species, prioritising marine mammals, and of habitats such as the few rocky zones in French Guiana which are found nowhere else from the Amazon to the Orinoco.

An additional conclusion was the need to work to increase awareness of the coastline of French Guiana and the wealth of its marine ecosystem, which is one of the most productive in the world.

Looking for the manatee

“For the first time in French Guiana we going to be trying out a new sonar device for detecting manatees,” Benoit de Thoisy explains. After testing this new technology on the Kaw River and at the Ilet la Mère, scientists will now be travelling to various sites including the Coswine marshes, one of the favourite gathering spots for manatees in French Guiana.

The Manatee, the only sea cow in French Guiana, is an emblematic species but it is particularly fragile, and fully protected by French law.

It can be observed in French Guiana in the mangrove forests along the coast and estuaries, as well as in the rocky waters very close to the shore. Very little is known about the biology and ecology of the manatee in French Guiana. This lack of knowledge is attributable to the turbid water along the coast of French Guiana making it a particularly difficult habitat to study. But there are new techniques which ought to make it possible to overcome at least some of these difficulties.

With the financial support of the Regional Directorate for the Environment, the Kwata Association has started an in-depth study of the ecology of the species. Boats equipped with sonar equipment make it possible to locate the animals and carry out counts by transect*. The association is hoping that this will provide the basic data about the distribution and density of manatees in French Guiana.

In conjunction with this the Association will be updating a survey carried out ten years ago to draw up a survey of observations of manatees in French Guiana and on knowledge about them amongst the various traditional communities.

In order to supplement this initial phase, Argos® tags could be fitted to several manatees so as to provide a better understanding of the movements of individuals, the ways they use their habitats, any seasonal migrations they might undertake, etc.

Protecting the Atlantic goliath grouper

A thesis is looking into the most emblematic fish of French Guiana, the Atlantic goliath grouper, or Epinephelus itajara.

Originally found in the tropical waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the species has totally disappeared from the African coasts, and the population from Florida to Brazil has fallen drastically as a result of overfishing. Since 1996 the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) has placed this overfished species on its red list as critically endangered worldwide.

In order to find out more about this endangered fish, Céline Artero is working with the Association of Fishermen and Recreational Sailors of French Guiana (Association des Pêcheurs et Plaisanciers de Guyane) to tag them. “We put a yellow “spaghetti tag” on scientific fishing expeditions. I carry out several samples on the grouper, especially on the backbone which makes it possible to determine its age. We hope to learn more about the life of Atlantic goliath groupers in French Guiana rapidly,” explains Céline Artero, a doctoral student at the ONCFS.

This aim of this grouper project is to learn more about the ecology and biology of the species: determine its habitat, monitor its growth, food, and reproduction, and better understand its movements.

The UEGC – a solution for the sustainable management of coastal fishing?

In French Guiana, fishing is the main export industry in the primary sector, and the third largest export activity after the space and mining industries. Nowadays coastal fishing plays a major part in the economy. The business is fragile, however, and requires sustainable local management given the specific context in French Guiana.

“The Regional Committee for Sea Fishing and Farming in French Guiana (Comité Régional des Pêches Maritimes et Elevages Marins, or CRPMEM) has volunteered together with local partners to test a concerted ecosystem approach for fishing by setting up a Concerted Management and Operation Unit (Unité d’Exploitation et de Gestion Concertée, or UEGC) to enable sustainable development of the coastal fishing industry in French Guiana,” states Patricia Triplet, the director of the CRPMEM in French Guiana. This new tool, called a “concerted management and operation unit”, is one of the outcomes of the Grenelle Sea Forum.

The experiment will be carried out on the entire French Guianese coast from the Maroni to the Oyapock estuaries, in territorial waters where coastal fishing takes place. All those involved in the industry including the upstream and downstream trades will be taking part, especially professional fishermen. The goal is to draft a strategy so as to better organise and structure the industry. In order to do this, the UEGC set-up in French Guiana is based on three basic priorities: creating jobs, profitability, and using resources whilst protecting fish stocks.

“By bringing together all those concerned the UEGC, funded mainly by the European Fisheries Fund, will drive the necessary decisions and actions to promote fishing and better manage fishing capacity on the coast of French Guiana whilst protecting marine ecosystems,” Patricia Triplet notes. All the data will be pooled and shared between professionals and scientists. Studies on the selectivity of fishing devices should encourage fishermen to reduce their discards (fish thrown directly back into the sea) and their interaction with emblematic species.

Another priority is to promote the produce of coastal fishing via advertising campaigns so as to boost consumer awareness in French Guiana, as well as to promote the social dimension with the main aim being to improve access to careers in fishing and make them more attractive.

The UEGC has therefore been set up, and all those in the fishing industry in French Guiana have managed to instil a dynamic around a genuinely political issue. We wish them all plain sailing!